Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Body Problem: Why are we so afraid of bodily functions?

A Parody of "Everyone Poops"
The children's book Everyone Poops, which documents the pooping styles and sizes of a range of animals and a little boy, did not get the greatest critical reception. Publishers Weekly said: "Okay, so everyone does it–does everyone have to talk about it? True, kids... may find it riveting, but their parents may not want to read to them about it... Call it what you will, by euphemism or by expletive, poop by any name seems an unsuitable picture book subject." Don't ask, don't tell seems to be the dominant ideology when it comes to poop. According to one grateful reader, the book helped her child "realize that pooping was normal," which is great, but it also suggests that the default belief is that pooping is somehow abnormal and shameful.

It's not just poop that we're uncomfortable with. We're also uncomfortable with body hairbody fatbreast-feedingpuberty, periodsdigestive soundsnudity, and pretty much anything else that involves natural body processes. Even Adam and Eve felt compelled to cover themselves with fig leaves. Why are our bodies so embarrassing?

Although poop and related processes seem outside of the range of topics generally studied by social psychologists, a group of researchers, led by psychologist Jamie Goldenberg, have bravely ventured into this territory and made some important discoveries about the origins of body-related shame. According to Goldenberg and colleagues, bodily functions are threatening because they remind us of our "creatureliness" and therefore our mortality, or vulnerability to death. Societal rules about proper body maintenance exist in part to manage our discomfort with our own and others' animality, and we are presumably motivated to conform to these rules in order to gain social acceptance and feel valued, even when conformity, paradoxically, compromises our physical health.

The theoretical basis for this perspective is Terror Management Theory (TMT), which is inspired by the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973), who argued that humans are uniquely burdened with a strong drive for self-preservation combined with an awareness of the inevitability and unpredictability of death. This unfortunate combination can arouse a sense of paralyzing existential terror. Thankfully, though also problematically, humans have found ways to manage this anxiety so that they rarely have to confront it directly. Denying the physicality of the body is one of these ways. In one study, for example, students who were reminded of the similarity between humans and animals were subsequently more likely to have death-related thoughts and expressed less interest in the physical aspects of sex, and more interest in the romantic aspects, compared to participants in a control condition. This shift in priorities was interpreted as a psychological defense against the threat of creatureliness.

Despite its protective properties, the denial of our animal nature can have serious costs for health and well-being. Reminders of mortality have been shown, for example, to decrease women's intentions to conduct breast self-examinations, and might also fuel body objectification, which is known to damage mental health. Not only can this denial hurt our health, but it may undermine our very humanity and sense of aliveness. As Becker put it, "The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive" (cited in Goldenberg et al., 2009).

Everyone poops ice cream T-shirt
Is there a way to come to terms with our animal nature and the joy that comes with it without becoming paralyzed by anxiety? "Unfortunately," Goldenberg writes, "this abandonment of fear and defense may require evolutionary developments beyond our current capacities (p. 215)." But that doesn't mean there is nothing we can do in the meantime. For starters, we can try to develop a more forgiving attitude toward our bodies when they betray us, as they inevitably do. When another person's bodily betrayals remind us of our own vulnerability, we can resist the urge to distance ourselves out of fear, and instead extend some compassion, knowing that we, too, could easily be in their shoes. And when all else fails, the least we can do is try to have a sense of humor about it all.


Goldenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). Fleeing the Body: A Terror Management Perspective on the Problem of Human Corporeality Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4 (3), 200-218 DOI: 10.1207/S15327957PSPR0403_1


  1. Interesting. But how do they account for cultural differences ? Or contextual variations inside one's own society ?

    1. Great question! My understanding is that this phenomenon is considered somewhat universal, at least according to proponents of TMT. All cultures presumably have ways of symbolically elevating the body above the physical/animal level, though the specific forms of elevation may differ based on social norms, fashion trends, shifting standards of beauty, etc.